Age at MLS Cup: 28
Hometown: Cordoba, Argentina
2020 IN ALL COMPETITIONS
In 2017, Crew fans were told by a now-former owner that they needed to respect his ambition. In 2020, the Crew’s new ownership group took a different approach by actually demonstrating honorable ambition. They took a quick break from ambitiously building a new stadium in downtown Columbus to ambitiously plunk down north of $7 million to purchase playmaker Lucas Zelarayan from Mexican powerhouse Tigres. Now that’s some ambition you can respect. And in his very first game, the Argentine demonstrated his worth with the game-winning goal on Crewsmas, back in the Before Times.
And then after the long COVID hiatus, when play resumed in the Orlando bubble, Zelarayan reintroduced himself to Crew fans by doing this gobsmacking thing to our hapless Kentucky cousins.
And then by the end of the year, Zelarayan was the chief assassin in the primetime Soundercide known as MLS Cup 2020. Playing on the biggest stage in MLS, he honored the occasion by scoring two scintillating goals and adding an assist in the Crew’s emphatic 3-0 de-coronation of the defending champs.
When it came time for this particular phone call with Josh Williams, I knew the topic would eventually turn to the Crew’s lineage of greatness. I’m speaking of course of the three great Argentine icons: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Federico “Pipa” Higuain, and Lucas Zelarayan. As the only Crew player to have been a teammate of all three of these Black & Gold playmaking legends, who better to talk with about that trio than Josh?
But he had lots to say about Lucas before we eventually got to that topic…
THROUGH JOSH’S EYES
“When I realized Lucas was going to be special was the first day of training in Chula Vista. Caleb wanted us to have some fun so he let us play 8v8. It was three teams of 8v8 and it was starting to get dark. You would look up and you couldn’t really tell who was across the field. It was getting that dark. It was the last game. We had already played the other team. We had to play their team to finish the tournament and then we were done. The level of play was very…we just got off the plane and it was getting dark. Nobody was really clean. I remember Lucas got the ball at midfield with his back to a defender. I am going to leave all these guys unnamed. I don’t want to drop any names, but he spins a guy at midfield. The next guy steps up and Lucas just steps on the ball and then rolls it through that guy’s legs. Then he takes off and rips one off the post. I just remember thinking, ‘Okay, that was different than anything else that’s been happening on the field. That looked different. That was special right there.’
“In training, his quality on the ball is insane. His ability to hit a ball is like when I would talk about (former teammates) Giovinco or David Villa. When these guys hit a ball, it’s just different. They strike the ball cleanly so much more often than everyone else. It’s like their target on the ball is just bigger because their ability to hit a clean ball happens all the time. They hardly ever mis-hit a ball. Lucas has that quality. If he is meaning to put a ball somewhere, it’s going to go there. He hardly ever does something good where you’re like, ‘I wonder if he meant to do that.’ He’s the type of player where everything he does, he meant to do it. Everything’s calculated, whether it’s his left or right foot. That quality was apparent right from the start. I knew right then that he was going to be special and help us as a team be special. And then throw in his ability to work off the ball, to play defense, his willingness to run, his willingness to get into a tackle. And then there’s his ability to body people. He is so good at shielding the ball. It’s almost like if he loses the ball, like maybe he touches it a little too far away from himself and a guy thinks he can tackle him, he still finds a way to win that duel and come away in an advantageous position. His ability to win duels, you don’t often see that in attacking players. It’s rare. To me, that’s about heart and determination. As a defender, I find if your best player is doing that, it sets the tone for what your team is about. That’s the first step to success, when you have everybody, including your best player, bought into playing hard on both sides of the ball.
“When you have a player like Lucas, you know he’s special because you see him every day, but until they do something like that in a big game, then you really know. That first game of the year in Columbus, there was a lot of excitement about our team. That game against New York City was a big game against a good team and we had a good crowd on hand. I was a little nervous because it wasn’t warm and we had just come from California and Phoenix. So when he goes out there and buries that shot, you knew he was the real deal. And then he proved it all year.
“That free kick against Cincinnati in the bubble, there are moments on the bench where there are certain goals that are scored and nobody really celebrates much because everyone is just looking around like, ‘WHAT?’ I mean, everyone’s excited, but it’s not a normal celebration because everyone is just awestruck. And then you have a guy like Darlington who never loses the ball. And then you have a guy like G who can run a defense to death. So you start adding up all these moments and that’s when I started telling my friends and my family, ‘I think we have a team that can do some damage in this league and make a serious run at this.’ I mean, when I saw him hit that free kick, I just went ‘Whoa.’ And I’d never seen him hit one like that. He doesn’t even practice those that much.
“I think a key factor is a guy like Lucas truly immersing himself in the locker room and becoming part of the team. Maybe some guys come over and don’t take that as seriously. And it’s not the ultimate factor in if people like you, but to have those casual conversations with people, it goes a long way. And then on the field, he approached me a few times about defensive positioning. Like, if I step in here, where should he go? It’s those little things that make you realize he’s truly bought in. Not only is he here to play soccer, but he’s here to be a good teammate and help the locker room.
“He and Milton get along very well and they are always drinking their mate tea. I think the tradition is that you share and pass it around, but because of COVID they had to stop doing that. They each brought in their own mate. But in the morning, Lucas is a quiet guy. He’s not a boisterous personality or even a yeller. He has a very calm personality. I think that comes out in his play as well. When there’s chaos on the field, he’s just painting while the world is falling apart around him. In the middle of all the chaos, he’s painting a beautiful picture. He’ll be painting, slip by a guy, paint a little more, another guy slides in and he sidesteps him and paints a little more. He’s just so crafty.
“Honestly, how he is on the field is exactly how he is off the field. He’s always calm. His personality is that way. And like Darlington, when you have your best player not having an ego, I think that’s such a crucial factor to a winning team. Can your best player have an ego and can you win that way? Yes, of course you can. But in our locker room, he is the perfect Designated Player. He’s the perfect guy that’s just going to put his head down and work. He’s not worrying about fame or glory or attention. He just loves the game of soccer and I think that comes from a long lineage of great players. Guillermo was that way. Pipa was that way. And now we have Lucas, who is the exact same way. He’s magic on the field, but when he steps off the field, it’s like Batman just wants to be Bruce Wayne again and have a normal life. I have so much respect for that and love that about him.
“One thing I’ve noticed about Guillermo, Pipa, and Lucas is that they’re always trying to learn, whether that’s the English language or the game or anything. And they all have this calm demeanor about them, which I love. I’m not that way. I’m a high-energy person. Off the field, I can get there. I like relaxing. But when I want something or want to learn something, I have this almost childish energy about it. I feel like those guys are always calm, cool, and collected. I don’t know if that’s the Argentinean way where they have this Bruce Wayne type of way about them, but they just have a calmness and coolness about them. In any scenario, they never seem rushed.
“All three of them are good people who appreciate the art. It’s not just a game. It’s not something that you always have to be upset about. There’s an art to it. If you want to try something, try it. I remember Pipa, he had one play, and I don’t know if you remember this. We were in Montreal and he had a breakaway and he tried, like, a back heel. He stepped over the ball and tried to clip it behind his leg. And he missed. And I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe he tried that! And then on top that he missed!’ I remember talking to him about that. I was like, ‘Damn, was that embarrassing or anything?’ He said, ‘Embarrassed? No. No. Never. Why not try it? This is a game. You’re supposed to try things. You’re supposed to express yourself.’ And I remember thinking about it differently. In my mind, I would still never try that. But it got me to thinking about how those guys are able to do the things that they do. It’s because they’re willing to try it. How many things do we miss out on in life just because we aren’t willing to try things? And to me, that was such a beautiful way to put it. And I remember it took me a while. I remember being kind of mad when Pipa did that. I remember thinking, ‘Damn, man, just finish that thing. Kill them off.’ We still ended up winning that game, so it didn’t really matter. But after talking to him, I remember thinking about that a lot. And now when I watch certain players and their willingness to just try things, I realize that’s what makes this game so fun. It’s because you can express yourself in that way. And I think all three of those guys have that ability.
“Take Lucas in the New England game when he cuts a bunch of guys and rips one off the post. It was right after Arty scored. Nobody expected him to hit it from that angle. But if you never hit it from that angle, you’re never gonna really know. He just does things all the time where you can tell he’s having fun out there. He just wants to create things and try things out. Fortunately, he’s blessed with the ability to pull a lot of those things off. A lot of us might have a great idea, but then we’d hurt ourselves trying to pull it off. But Lucas can think about it and then actually pull it off. That’s what makes him so special. I think that’s just the culture of these Argentineans. It’s how they were brought up. They are taught it is a beautiful game and they treat it as such.
“I think the one difference from Guillermo and Pipa is that I think Lucas is more of a scorer. Maybe that’s just the way the game is evolving, or maybe that’s just the way that he is. I fee like Guillermo and Pipa were more creators in the sense of springing a guy and passing a guy open. Not that Lucas can’t do that. All three of them have the ability to do that. But I feel like Guillermo and Pipa, when they got in the final third, they were first looking for the killer pass, whereas Lucas is looking for the killer shot. Obviously, the championship game puts that into perspective perfectly. He scores two goals, and on the other one, it looks like he’s going to bang it with his left foot and then he slips a perfect pass to Derrick. I think all three of those guys have the ability to score and assist, but Guillermo and Pipa always seemed like they looked to pass more whereas Lucas likes to kill them off with a shot. There’s a reason all three of them have had so much success. You never know what they’re going to do. One thing sets up the other. They have the insane ability to pick out any pass on the field, left or right foot, but if you back off of them, they’re just going to put the ball in the corner of the net and then run to the corner flag to celebrate.”
[NOTE: To see a clickable list of earlier installments of this Josh Williams series or other MLS Cup related posts, please click HERE.]
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